A Statement concerning St Stephen’s Church, Middlesbrough from the Free Church of England

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It is a matter of regret that articles have been published on social media sites without the Free Church of England’s perspective having first been sought. In relation to the closure of St Stephen’s Church in Middlesbrough, the following clarifications are offered.

  • In 2016 the premises of St Stephen’s Church, Middlesbrough (which were owned by the Free Church of England Central Trust (a charitable company incorporated in 1941)) were found to be in a dangerous state of repair.
  • Following consultation with the congregation, in 2017 the Free Church of England Central Trust sold the property.
  • The remaining congregation (fewer than 10 people) began worshipping in community centres, including the John Paul II Centre which was generously made available by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Middlesbrough.
  • Following consultation with the congregation the Central Trust agreed to spend a portion of the proceeds of sale to provide a Minister in the hope that he could revive the congregation. This decision was widely reported in the denomination and published in the Year Books.
  • In April 2018 a Minister was engaged at a stipend of £24,000 per annum plus accommodation costs and expenses.
  • Two years later there had been no significant growth in the size of the congregation. It was certainly not able to take on the costs of a Minister.
  • It was a requirement of the Minister’s contract that it be reviewed after two years and that there be an annual review of the ministry thereafter, conducted by the Churchwardens in consultation with the Diocesan Bishop.
  • At the Annual Congregational meeting in February 2020 the Churchwardens’ review drew attention to the fact that the allocated sum was being depleted and that supplementary sources of funding needed to be sought, beginning immediately. The Minister claimed he was too busy to action this, despite a commitment in the review to meet quarterly with the congregation to do so.
  • In November 2020 the General Secretary of Central Trust wrote to the Minister reminding him of the fact that the allocated funding was being depleted, but, rather than simply ceasing payments in March 2021 (when the allocated funding would be exhausted), offering him a further six months’ half stipend beyond that date to enable the ministry to continue and give time for new sources of funding to be identified. The Minister refused the offer.
  • The next annual review of the ministry was due in February 2021 in time for the Annual Congregational Meeting. By this time there was only one Warden in post, the other having resigned earlier in the year in protest at the Minister’s behaviour. The remaining Warden agreed with the Bishop that, since meetings were not permitted under pandemic regulations, all members of the Church Council (as representatives of the congregation) would be contacted by telephone or social media and their views sought.
  • All members of the Church Council were contacted. Two refused to take part in the review, apparently on the Minister’s advice.
  • The remaining members (who constituted two thirds of the Church Council) all expressed dissatisfaction with the Minister’s ministry. They also unanimously agreed that things had not worked out as hoped and that, since the funds had now run out, the Church should be closed. They have all confirmed this in writing.
  • The combination of these two factors (the exhaustion of the allocated funds and the request from the Church Council that the Church be closed) meant that the Minister’s role as Stipendiary Presbyter was at risk.
  • Legal advice was therefore sought. The advice was that it was necessary for a redundancy consultation process to commence. The remaining Warden, as ‘employer’ under the contract, gave Central Trust her authority to conduct this on her behalf, and confirmed this in writing.
  • A redundancy process, supervised by legal advice, was therefore initiated. The Minister was allowed Trade Union representation and the right of appeal – both of these more than he was entitled to by law.
  • Following two redundancy meetings there had been no material change in the situation and the Minister was made redundant on 22 February 2021. All due payments were made.
  • There were no alternative paid posts in the Free Church of England that he could be offered.
  • The Minister appealed and his appeal was heard on 9 March 2021. The appeal was considered by Central Trust at meetings on 18 and 19 March. The appeal was unsuccessful. (Bishop John Fenwick took no part in the appeal process and was not a party to the final decision.)
  • Following the Minister’s redundancy on 22 February, the Diocesan Bishop, on legal advice, with great sadness, acceded to the Church Council’s request and withdrew recognition from St Stephen’s Middlesbrough as an organised congregation of the Free Church of England otherwise called the Reformed Episcopal Church on 23 February.
  • Although not a factor in the redundancy process, there had been concerns about the Minister’s pastoral ministry. Four separate complaints had been made from women about his behaviour towards them. These had been discussed by the Bishop with the Safeguarding Officer. While not requiring the triggering of Safeguarding procedures, they were nevertheless raised by the Bishop with the Minister who refused to take them seriously or discuss them. There was also a complaint about cruelty to an animal. There had been other expressions of dissatisfaction.
  • ‘Scattered Membership’ is a form of membership regulated by Canon. It is open to any former member of St Stephen’s to apply. Several have done so and so continue their membership of the Free Church of England.